1) Sensitizing the villagers through Godha Naach
Increasing human population and infrastructural development are leading to the fragmentation of forests. As a consequence of this, the habitat for wild animals is shrinking at a very fast rate. Elephants are highly intelligent, long-ranging animals that follow their traditional routes to move from one place to another in search of food. Their migratory paths are hindered multiple obstacles by irrigation canals, factories, national highways and railway lines, which leads to rise in human elephant conflicts.
Over the last decade, instances of human-elephant conflict have seen a sharp incline in Odisha. The Chanadaka-Dampara wildlife sanctuary, Bhubaneswar holds about 90 elephants in a small and degraded forest of about 190 sq km. Seeking refuge, these elephants wander in rural lands and patches of forests in Athgarh forest division. Whenever the herd emerges out of the sanctuary at night in search of food, thousands of people materialise out of nowhere, and starts abusing the elephants relentlessly. The herd is being harassed and beaten with wooden stick for no reason. The mobs of people surround the herd and don’t allow their passage. This has become a kind of entertainment for the people every evening in Athgarh forest division. Similar incidence was reported in Dhenkanal forest division, where irate villagers trapped the elephants migrating from Sunajhari and Kantajhari reserve forest in the middle of the fast flowing Brahmani River. This was done in retaliation for crop losses and damage caused to their houses by elephants.
To avoid the replication of shame incident of Athgarh forest division, a rapid action project was initiated in Dhenkanal to provide safe passage for the elephants. Along with monitoring for human elephant mitigation, the primary response teams (PRTs) are also conducting night patrolling with Forest dept and keeping a vigil on the conflict prone villages. The team members are ensuring that villagers do not block the elephant’s migratory passage. To change people’s apathy towards elephants, it is crucial to sensitize the affected communities and foster awareness about the species. The PRTs also conducted sensitization programmes with the help of a local folk media popularly known as Godha Naach (Horse dance) villages under Meramundali & Dihadol Forest Sections of Dhenkanal Forest Division. Godha Naach is a traditional folk dance dedicated to the goddess of fisherman community. The program was aimed to build the relationship between communities, primary response team and forest department. The first such program was arranged in Sridiha village. This program was used as a platform to disseminate the message of conservation of the elephants among villagers since the Godha Naach attracts a huge number of people. The chief artist known as ‘Gayak’ (singer) composed the folk lore on the several topics related to conservation of elephants, their role in ecosystem, history and causes of conflicts. Various reasons of elephant deaths like electrocution, poisoning, dehydration, poaching were also mentioned in the lore. The people were also introduced about elephant corridors of Dhenkanal and compensation schemes available. People wearing the dresses which look alike horses, performed the dance, and hence it is called Ghoda naach (horse dance). Instead of the fact that villagers are badly affected by the conflicts, all of them showed their interest in the event. They made arrangements for the visitors, listened to the gayak and understood the importance of elephants. Nearly 400 people witnessed the program along with the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Miss. Rinku Kumari (IFS) and Mr. Bibhuti Bhusan Pattnaik, (FRO), Dhenkanal range.
To bring it to a larger extent, more such sensitization programs were conducted in the conflict prone villages. The proverb “Walls do speak” says that paintings/hoardings done on walls helps in communicating the message to larger mass of people. Apart from sensitization programs, wall paintings were also done in strategic locations like community buildings, bus stop, forest quarters and gram panchayat office to reach out the message of elephant conservation to the villagers. The wall paintings will deliver the guidelines to provide the right of passage to the elephants and how to deal with the conflicts.